January 22, 2002 11:00 pm
HEAVY TRAFFIC: Willow School officials and parents of schoolchildren are concerned about the increase in traffic on Willow Street that runs in front of the school. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
HEAVY TRAFFIC: Willow School officials and parents of schoolchildren are concerned about the increase in traffic on Willow Street that runs in front of the school. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Willow Elementary School Principal Charlotte McLaughlin is making an urgent plea to the motorists who drive by her school: slow down or take a route that bypasses the school.

Doing so could ultimately save a child from serious injury.

McLaughlin and other Willow staff members and parents have been on pins and needles in recent months because traffic past the school has increased significantly.

It is a huge issue. ... The traffic has increased and it is a lot faster, McLaughlin said. I think that we are at risk. I dont want to take a chance on a childs life.

The problem is particularly bad between 2 and 3 p.m. when children are being picked up by their parents and buses. McLaughlin is urging drivers to avoid Willow Street at this time because of the congestion. She explained that it is hard for motorists to see children then because of all the traffic and parked cars.

The traffic increase at Willow has been tied to several factors including:

The opening of La Grandes new Safeway store at Willow Street and Adams Avenue in early December. Many people are traveling on Willow while driving to and from the new store. Safeway was previously located in the downtown area at Fourth Street and Adams Avenue.

An increased number of people bringing materials to City Garbage Services recycling center on Willow Street.

The construction of more homes in the Willow School area.

The La Grande School District, City of La Grande and Oregon Department of Transportation are working to address the problem. They are considering things such as the installation of speed bumps and a stoplight.

Decisions will be made after a traffic count is conducted by ODOT. The state will monitor the number of cars passing through the area, the speed of the vehicles, where cars are turning and pedestrian traffic.

Several options

Increased enforcement and speed bumps are often the most effective ways of slowing traffic, said La Grande City Manager Wes Hare. The police department has stepped up its patrols of the area to prevent speeding.

The speed limit on Willow Street is 25 mph and 20 mph in the school zone when children are present.

The citys Parking and Traffic Safety Committee is looking into the possibility of having the city install speed bumps on Willow. The committee will make a recommendation to the city council. The cost of installing a speed bump is about $5,000, said Norm Paullus, La Grandes assistant public works director.

ODOT began addressing the Willow Elementary traffic issues this fall by changing the color of speed limit and warning signs on the street from yellow to a fluorescent green. The color is more likely to catch drivers attention because it is different, said Mike Barry, ODOTs district operations coordinator.

A factor which should improve the Willow Street traffic problem is a planned move of the recycling center to a site just outside La Grande. Darin Larvik, an owner of City Garbage, told the La Grande City Council earlier that the recycling center will be moved sometime this year to a site that has more space.

The seriousness of Willow Elementarys traffic problem is compounded by the fact that the school does not have a parking lot. Parents cannot drive into a lot to safely unload and pick up their children. This increases the likelihood of parents making mistakes.

McLaughlin has been horrified to see some parents park on the west side of Willow Street and have their children cross to reach them.

This is extremely dangerous, the principal said. Drivers sometimes cant see children running across the street.

The situation at Willow is made worse by an absence of sidewalks in much of the area around the school, McLaughlin said. This means that children often end up walking in the street.

McLaughlin hopes to improve Willows safety situation by bringing in adult volunteers to serve as crossing guards or crossing guard supervisors.

Anyone who would like to serve as a volunteer should call the school at 663-3555.